“Where I come from, it’s the bottom line that counts. Business is a zero-sum game.”
Gerald’s initial collegial introduction, which included a rundown of his various high-profile achievements on behalf of Severance Incorporated, Westchester County’s largest employer, had now devolved into sarcasm as he held up his palm in an apparent effort to make Catherine feel like a doofus. But she foresaw this in the days leading up to her meeting with him.
“Not only do I need to beat the Street, I need record profit at the end of the fiscal year. End of story,” he said. “You know what a fiscal year is, right?”
Catherine was nothing if not pragmatic in both her words and her actions, so she fought the urge to sit up and lean forward in her recliner, which she determined might be considered an aggressive posture for a man that was used to the command-and-control paradigm. Instead, she simply clasped her hands on her lap and maintained her stoic look. She didn’t need her psychic gifts to sense both Gerald’s arrogance and his desperation, the gumbo of emotions that had brought him, and several other executives, to her home office in the burbs to find that ever-elusive edge in a complex marketplace.
The edge was what proved the veracity of Gerald’s existence.
He seemed out of his element today in baggy Levi’s, a New York Yankees hoodie and what appeared to be expensive Rockport boots, overdressed due to the late summer heat. Of course, he wasn’t going to wear a suit to meet with Catherine, even if the meeting was at her home office. If word got out that Gerald’s business acumen was aided by a psychic…perish the thought of the damage his reputation would take, to say nothing of his company. The board of directors would be hot.
“You’ve gotta understand, lady,” he said, wiping perspiration from his craggy, shaven, suntanned brow with the sleeve of his hoodie, “that there’s never a day off for me.” He leaned forward in his armchair when speaking the word “never.”
“I’m sure your family appreciates that,” Catherine replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I apologize. I meant that your dedication to your work provides accoutrements that your family doubtless appreciates.” Nice recovery, Catherine thought, this time with her own brand of lilting sarcasm.
There was a valley of silence, then, as Catherine and Gerald stared at each other. They both started to speak, then stopped, then started again. Catherine held out her hand to signal her new client that he had the floor, which he assumed forthwith.
“I’ve got this problem,” Gerald said. “A big problem, something you probably won’t fully understand, but I’ll tell you anyway just for context. The board is on my ass to boost our stock price by ten percent by the end of the year, which is the end of our fiscal year.”
Catherine said nothing.
“Thus and so, there’s this tremendous pressure to produce, but it’s not just that. We’ve got this competitor…”
Catherine interrupted with, “What’s its name?”
Gerald flashed irritation, his eyes evolving into a squint, his lips pursed. Nobody interrupted him.
“Why does that matter?”
“Maybe I’m familiar with the company, which will help me center my thoughts on what it is trying to achieve and its impact on your firm,” Catherine replied, already knowing the competitor was Harpen Industries, the firm with the logo of big, fat, red letters which made her feel welcomed, as if it was a family-run business. Which it was.
Gerald seemed to consider this, while running his right hand through his salt-and-pepper hair to remove the perspiration. Even though the windows were open, the temperature in the room must have been at least seventy-five, possibly even pushing eighty, warm even for that time of the year. Catherine was comfortable in her ankle-length sun dress and cute sandals, and didn’t regret at all the fact that she had doused the air conditioning prior to the meeting.
You see, like Harpen Industries, she had seen Gerald in her special vision, and knew him in an intimate way. Not personally, of course, but she knew what had brought him here. She knew that his collar was warm, so to speak, because of his board and its ridiculous demands, which ultimately placed him in the hated servile position. His attire, combined with the sultry air of the room, would compel him to hurry along. Or maybe even leave.
While she rejected no one who arrived at her door, there were clients she would best do away with, because they were near-impossible to placate.
“Okay, so, the competitor is this piece of garbage firm called Harpen, and the deal is, I want to go thermonuclear on them and take away their ability to be profitable,” he said. “You get that?”
“I don’t want to go too fast and leave you behind, because there’s too much riding on this meeting for there to be a fuck up.”
“I would appreciate it if you didn’t use foul language in my place of work,” said Catherine, who almost never swore but suddenly felt the urge. Temper, temper, she thought. Let this man dictate his own exit.
Gerald frowned and shook his head.
“You’re a psychic,” he said. “It’s not like you’re running a real business here. And I’m paying you good money to get me the intel I need to destroy Harpen and meet the board’s expectations, and the Street’s.”
“So this is all about your firm?” Catherine said, knowing full well that it really was all about greed. She saw in her mind Gerald’s financial portfolio that revealed an aggregate amount of well over eight figures. The computer monitor was next to a window, where snow was lightly falling. Heard in the background was a high-pitched female voice, raving about a recent Times Square shopping spree. She sensed Gerald’s frustration about this, which was tempered by the thought of some administrative assistant with the shapely backside that he had been sleeping with for months.
“Of course this is about the company,” Gerald shot back. “This is about winning a war. And I never lose.”
Catherine crossed her legs.
“Sir, are you familiar with Robert Oppenheimer?” she said.
“He was the one who uttered a significant historical phrase after he witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the end of World War II.”
“I don’t care about history.”
Catherine ignored that and replied, “He said, Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. That’s from the Bhagavad Gita.”
In her special vision, she saw Gerald standing in front of a group of dour, silent old men with expensive suits around a conference room table, save one—a young buck in a black T-shirt, designer jeans and flip-flops. He looked familiar; he was the founder of some social media company, she couldn’t recall which one. But he was calculated, Machiavellian.
“Look,” he said. “We live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. So my question is simple: How are you going to get this train back on the track and make me my money?”
There. That was substantially important. There.
Gerald paused, which may as well have been a flinch.
She sensed at that moment his desperate need to respond in a way that would calm the young buck and send positive vibes—she hated that word—into the room.
“I can assure you, Dylan, that our gameplan is both unprecedented and unstoppable,” he said. “You will get paid. I guarantee it.”
Then Catherine saw herself.
Her gifts would be leveraged for numbers on a spreadsheet.
Gerald brought her back to the present by clapping his hands.
“Wake up, birdbrain, I’ve got a real, actual problem here,” he said.
There would be no placating this man.
“The point of the quote is self-introspection,” she said. “Are you considering all facets of why you are sitting in your chair?”
“What the hell is this about? I’m paying you good money to tell me what to do about our strategic position and how I can eliminate Harpen from the equation.”
He paused and added, “Maybe this was a mistake.”
“I don’t think it is, actually,” Catherine replied. “I’m not Christian, but the Bible says that if you humble yourself, you will be exalted. How does that apply to this situation, do you think?”
Now Catherine felt like a teacher, leading a student down the garden path toward educational enlightenment. She hesitated assuming this route, because Gerald was indeed paying him well for her insights and capabilities to divine the future.
“I don’t believe in God,” he replied. “The only thing that interests me is a rising stock price and the manly ability to ruin someone else’s day. That’s it.”
“That’s all?” Catherine replied.
“Yep. As a matter of fact, I am a god. I will assume control of this world, economically, anyway. And you’re going to help me do it.”
This conversation has come to a crossroads, Catherine considered. Yes, cultivating this customer could have strong financially repercussions for her business.
But at what cost?
So she foraged on.
“I’m a believer in the consequences of one’s actions,” she began. “I’m also a believer in karma, the idea that one can create negative energy to satisfy a personal need.”
“Affluence, for one. Notoriety. Control. Destruction of an enemy, real or perceived. This negative energy creates an empty vessel. A true lack of happiness.”
There was no turning back now. The truth was what was crucial. Delivering the truth could—would—have negative repercussions. There was time, but there was no time. Not for a person bent on self-destruction, particularly if it occurred on the eve of total success.
“You must understand the emptiness of your goal,” she concluded. “True happiness does not mean taking over the world.”
It was finished.
Gerald let out a tiny laugh, almost like a humorous belch, and shook his head again.
“I came here to find out how I beat Harpen and take what’s mine. And you’re throwing religion and historical psychobabble at me?”
Again, Catherine remained silent.
“Maybe you’re just a charlatan. ’Cause it sounds like you’re slinging a bunch of bullshit.”
“I’m out of here. And that fee of yours that I was going to double? Forget it.”
“Gerald,” she said, sitting forward now, and using his first name, a PR trick she borrowed often to build rapport with a client. “You would be well-served to both listen and consider what I’ve shared with you. I can say nothing more than that.”
The slam of her office door echoed for several moments. So did the slam of her front door.
Catherine didn’t move for awhile, preferring to close her eyes, but not to rest.
She saw what was coming, and she shook her head.
The Internet was a hive of misinformation, but Catherine sipped her chamomile tea and read the bulletin on her screen. This was on the front landing page of her local newspaper’s website, not under the Business section tab, so the story had implications for the greater populace.
Gerald was making news.
Trouble continues for Severance, local economy
Severance Incorporated’s stock continued its free fall today, dropping to roughly half of its value two months ago. The company made the controversial decision to lay off ten percent of its global workforce, including a thousand jobs regionally. In a statement from a company spokesperson, while the headcount reduction is controversial, it’s the right move for the local economy in the long run.
Catherine never, ever gloated.
Catherine rarely drank coffee, preferring the calming effect of tea, particularly chamomile, or Earl Grey on a rainy day. But this morning was different. She had spent most of the night considering how she would counsel her new—check that—old client. On her kitchen counter was a printout of a newspaper article.
Hamblen out at Severance
Gerald Hamblen, CEO of Severance Incorporated, was relieved of his duties yesterday by the multinational company’s board, citing poor performance due to a stock price that lost sixty percent of its value last fall. In a statement, the company wished Hamblen the best going forward, but that the time had come to “formulate a solution to irreconcilable differences and drive growth through a new business philosophy.” The statement also noted that the ten percent reduction in its global workforce would be revisited “in light of new innovations and a changing economy.”
Hamblen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The knock at her front door was humble, if there can be such a thing…three short raps, then silence. Placing her bare feet in red fur-lined slippers, Catherine made her way to the door and peered through the eye piece.
Gerald was dressed in a dark blue Columbia ski jacket with the collar pulled up to provide protection against the deep Westchester County wind, along with thick Gore-Tex gloves. His dark, intense eyes stared back at her, but there was something different about them, which she surmised was contrition.
She knew what he was going to say to her.
After the entrance niceties and the short walk across the house to her office, he sat in the same armchair as the prior summer while Catherine slid into her black leather recliner. Then there was another valley of silence before Gerald spoke.
“You’ve probably got a right to say I told you so,” he began, before looking down at his boots.
“I never gloat,” Catherine replied. “May I ask what happened?”
“Don’t you know? It was all over the news.”
“I realize that, but behind the scenes,” she said, “if you’re comfortable sharing.”
Gerald ran his right hand through his hair, which appeared to have gotten grayer since the summer.
“I can’t tell you that because of confidentiality agreements in my severance package,” he said, then added, “That’s pretty funny. A severance from Severance. I’m a hoot.”
Catherine already knew what had happened. She knew about the board’s revolt, led by that young turk, the one who launched the social media channel with a billion users. She knew about Gerald’s pending divorce, after the young lady he was seeing on the side confronted him, then his wife.
She also knew about the acute feelings of worthlessness and loss, and the fleeting thoughts of a violent suicide.
She knew all of this. But she had to hear him reveal those things in his own words, which he did. He also told her several other things that it was clear was cathartic for him.
Then he said something else unexpected.
“Catherine,” using her first name for the first time ever, “I guess I owe you an apology.”
He stopped and looked down, adding, “This is really hard for me.”
“Take your time,” she said.
“I was so close,” he went on. “So close to pulling off the deal of the century that would have bolstered the stock price, ruined Harpen and given me a new lease on life with the board. But I fell right at the finish line, which was the reason for the workforce reduction and a lot of other things.”
Catherine folded her hands on her lap, as she was prone to do when there was a real act of awakening. She had to remind herself she was not a trained counselor, but her psychic abilities did offer a window into that world.
“I’m wondering if there is anything you can see, anything at all, in my future that will give me some hope,” he said.
As immediate as the final word leaving his mouth, Harpen Industries’ logo, flush with its big, fat red letters occupied her mind’s eye.
She discerned that CEO Elwood Harpen II would announce his retirement in the coming months; when exactly, she couldn’t be sure. Nevertheless, there was a fleeting glimpse of Gerald standing in front of another board, consisting of middle-aged men and Harpen family members who used soft tones and jokes to ease Gerald through his job interview.
“I think you’re going to be just fine,” she said, winking.